Monday, May 01, 2006

Inquiry Teaching: What is the Question?

Excellent (though old) article on The Art of Questioning in the classroom from the Exploratorium's website. Author Dennis Wolf says:

"Classroom questions are often disingenuous. Some are rhetorical: "Are we ready to begin now?" Others are mere information checks-a teacher knows the answer and wants to know if students do, too. Missing from many classrooms are what might be considered true questions, either requests for new information that belongs uniquely to the person being questioned or initiations of mutual inquiry (Bly 1986, Cook-Gumperz 1982)."

This article is mainly for teachers and other educators, but holds keys for homeschoolers and for parents of gifted kids who know there is something wrong with the classroom environment but can't quite put their finger on it. All kids, gifted kids in particular, need teachers who ask questions and then listen to and build on the answers. Too many times a teacher will ask a fact-based question: "Who was George Washington?" A: "The Father of our Country" or "Our First President" while the gifted kids in the room are thinking, "Yes, but why? Why him? Why not John Adams or Thomas Jefferson? What makes him so special?" Those questions are never discussed, particularly in the elementary classroom, and if the gifted child brings them up, the teacher says, "I don't know" and goes on to the next question on her list.

Teachers congratulate themselves for admitting they don't know something. (True, I used to be one. We were taught that "I don't know" is a good answer.) But it doesn't take most gifted kids long to realize that "I don't know" means "I don't care" and "Shut up." So does, "Why don't you look it up?", by the way, because despite the suggestion, the student can't get out of her seat to look it up right then (because they're in the middle of a class discussion!), and if she does find out later and brings that knowledge back with her, she gets looked at like a freak by the teacher. (But I'm not bitter, and that's a good thing. LOL)

Why do we need to ask better questions?

"Being asked and learning to pose strong questions might offer students a deeply held, internal blueprint for inquiry -apart from the prods and supports of questions from without. That blueprint would have many of the qualities that teachers' best questions do: range, arc, authenticity. But if the sum is greater than the parts, there might be an additional quality-call it a capacity for question finding (Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi 1976). Question finding is the ability to go to a poem, a painting, a piece of music-or a document, a mathematical description, a science experiment-and locate a novel direction for investigation. This ability is difficult to teach directly, yet it may be one of the most important byproducts of learning in an educational climate in which the questions asked are varied, worth pursuit, authentic, and humanely posed."

For gifted children, the ability to question is innate; ask anyone with a gifted four-year-old who never stops talking. It is just as important that our responses to their questions be more than "Uh-huh," and "I don't know," (at least when humanly possible). A simple change from "Why don't you look it up?" to "Why don't we look it up?" can make all the difference in the world. That's the answer. ;-)

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